Rim Country residents breathed a sigh of relief Thursday morning as word spread through town that the Arizona Department of Transportation had reopened Highway 87.
As of 10 a.m. Thursday, March 27, ADOT reopened the highway to one lane of travel in each direction.
North and southbound traffic is restricted to the two northbound lanes for roughly a two-mile stretch of roadway through the area near Slate Creek where a landslide occurred on Friday, March 21.
The speed limit through ADOT's work zone is a maximum of 45 miles-per-hour with double fines for speeding.
There is also a 12-foot width restriction for any vehicle traveling on Highway 87, said ADOT Public Information Officer Bill Williams.
Williams said ADOT officials at the Bush Highway turnoff told him that traffic was flowing smoothly there as well.
ADOT has been at the site of the landslide since the afternoon it occurred.
Since then, crews have removed the mass of debris that came off the hillside and were cleaning the surface of the still-closed southbound lanes Thursday morning.
Williams said geologists and ADOT officials hoped Wednesday evening that they would be able to make an announcement the following morning, but didn't make a final determination until early Thursday that the hillside was stabilized and could safely reopen for travel.
He said monitoring devices and lasers installed by ADOT will continue to monitor the site for vertical and lateral movement as crews continue working to restore the southbound two lanes to traffic.
"We are hesitant to predict when we will be able to complete repairs to the highway," Williams said. "Let's just say it will take long enough to do it right."
"Our team has moved quickly since the landslide to make State Route 87 safe for motorists and restore this critical link between northern Arizona and the Phoenix area," said ADOT Director Victor Mendez.
Williams said the reason it took as long as it did to reopen the highway is because crews had to remove hundreds of thousands of yards of dirt and take some of the weight off of the slope.
Removing the weight of all that dirt allowed the hillside to stabilize so ADOT could safely reopen the highway, he said.
As far as what caused the landslide, geologists with the state said it was due to a combination of factors.
"A series of landslides occurred along Highway 87 at about mile marker 224 on Friday, March 21, buckling the southbound lanes and causing the highway to be shut down in both directions over the Easter holiday weekend. The slides occurred on a slope that had been mitigated with various combinations of vertical concrete walls (shotcrete), horizontal bolts, straw wattles, and drainages lined with boulders.
"No trigger for the slides was immediately apparent, although it is suspected that a combination of groundwater buildup in conjunction with vibrations from passing vehicles may have contributed. AZGS geologists are continuing to assess the landslides," M. Diaz B. Gootee with the Arizona Geological Survey said.
Not all, but some Payson business professionals said the week-long closure of the highway had a significant impact on them.
A spokesperson with the Tonto Apache Market said that the landslide-caused closure of the highway wasn't immediately felt, but after a couple of days resulted in a noticeable loss of business.
"I would guess we saw up to a 50 percent drop in business at times," the spokesperson said. "If I had known how slow it was going to be on Easter, I would have just closed the store."
The spokesperson said that weekend business was fairly normal because they had regular customers come in to stock up for the weekend, but that in the middle of the week, business slowed to a trickle sometimes.
Another local businesswoman, Claire Schulte with Land America Capital Title Agency, said her business also felt the impact of the week-long closure.
Schulte took exception to comments made by John Stanton with the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce.
On Monday, March 24, Stanton said that it was business as usual in Payson despite ADOT having to close Highway 87.
"I am a 25-year-old, single mother of two and I commute every day from Payson to Ahwatukee," said Schulte. "I spend a lot of money on gas and now six hours a day making that drive. I also know there are more people than just myself that make that commute," she added.
"Someone needs to light a fire and figure out when this will be fixed. With the price of gas and no jobs in Payson to raise a family, this is a real hardship for myself and others."
Stanton said he sympathized with Schulte, but that when he made the comment March 24 he had not heard anything to the contrary .
"Also, I wanted to get the message out that there are two other ways to get into Payson through Globe and Camp Verde that a lot of people don't necessarily know about," said Stanton.
Cameron Davis with the Town of Payson Office of Tourism and Economic Development said that the reopening of Highway 87 is without doubt a relief, but Payson is not necessarily out of the woods yet.
"The Majestic (Mountain) Inn told me they had eight cancellations this week," he said.
"This is a quick-fix," Davis said. "We still need the help of the community."
He said Rim Country residents could help the entire community by buying locally and going out to dinner or other local activities and supporting local businesses.
Click here to view the latest Arizona Geological Survey of the Highway 87 landslide.
Check out the photo gallery of ADOT earth movers reclaiming the hillside that collapsed on Hwy 87.